In 1986, the Chernobyl reactor disaster shook the world and irradiated a vast region east of Polesia
The group was accompanied by rangers from the Belarusian park administration, as access to the restricted zone is still carefully monitored, and is prohibited without permission. 33 years after the reactor catastrophe, Chernobyl remains a gigantic, involuntary experiment. For years there has been heated scientific debate about the best way to assess and interpret the effects of radioactivity on wildlife and nature. This is because the results are contradictory, depending on the group of animals or plants being examined. In addition, most studies are based on small sample sizes or short periods of time, as access to the area is very limited for scientists.
Michael Brombacher was only able to gain a cursory overview of the death zone. Yet he was impressed by how quickly nature had reclaimed the land. The warbling call of the black grouses, whose mating season had already begun, sounded from all directions. The birds could be seen everywhere. The large mammals had not taken long to arrive, either. Brombacher spotted the first elk only half an hour into the trip. And only a short time later a wolf appeared by the roadside in the middle of the day.
Research in an area being reclaimed by nature
A biosphere reserve (covering two thirds of the restricted zone) was not established in Ukraine until 2016. The Chernobyl areas, which have since returned to wilderness, provide valuable scientific insights into how nature develops without human intervention. The original goal of the exclusion zone was to seal off – for centuries – the radiation-contaminated area. A scientific department was set up to investigate how the landscape develops without the ongoing interference of man, yet under the influence of high radiation exposure. A dramatic catastrophe has involuntarily created a vast space for scientific investigation. Where else in Europe can the interaction between so many species and landscape development without human interference be explored? Chernobyl provides valuable data for the planning of large-scale nature conservation projects and for the renaturation of "abused" landscapes, such as former military training areas.
The radiation exposure varies depending on the distance from the former reactor. Therefore, mutations in the genomes of animal and plant species can still occur today. It is being investigated whether these mutations have a negative effect only on the life expectancy of individual creatures or whether they change entire populations. It is possible that radiation exposure may even be carried far beyond the restricted zone through the migration of animals. Not all interactions have been investigated so far, yet the development of animal and plant populations over the past 30 years already shows that the process of natural succession continues, even after a nuclear catastrophe. Forests and increasingly species-rich habitats are developing again, even for rare species, in the areas around Chernobyl which largely consisted of open and agricultural land before 1986. The only species for whom the area will be lost for centuries – or even millennia – is probably us humans.
Rare animal species settle in the exclusion zone
In some cases, human intervention in nature appears to have a stronger influence on animals and plants than the current levels of radiation exposure. Species such as the white stork, which have adapted to life near human settlements, declined after 1986. Instead, increasing numbers of predators have migrated into the restricted zone, above all buzzards and goshawks. These have adopted the fallow agricultural areas as a new habitat. But larger species, such as the spotted eagle and the brown bear, have also returned to the region. "Before the reactor disaster, there were no spotted eagles there. In the meantime, more than ten breeding pairs have settled in the Belarusian protected zone," says Viktar Fenchuk, who has been in charge of the FZS project areas in Belarus for several years.
Michael Brombacher left the protected area in 2013 with mixed feelings. Fascinated by how nature can reclaim the world once we humans have disappeared, but also deeply concerned about what we are doing to our planet.